Financing Urban Mobility in Africa: Mobilising money for movement within and between African cities


This report is focussed on financing urban mobility in Africa, specifically on developing a robust understanding of the urban mobility context in Africa, a high-level picture of the mobility needs and challenges on the continent, and a framework for considering how investment in mobility can contribute to sustainable development.

Section 1 outlines the vital importance of urban mobility investments for the future of Africa. Transport systems undeniably form the backbone of Africa’s socio-economic activities by enabling the movement of people, goods, services and products. However, there are acute tensions between the prioritisation of mobility infrastructure that primarily serves the global economy, for example, ports, compared with that which primarily supports local and everyday movement needs, for example, public buses. To overcome this, integration between scales of investments and modalities is key. Large and small cities are a key entry point for driving this integration agenda. Functioning, integrated and connected cities are essential to achieving economic growth, addressing key climate risks, and intervening in the entrenched systems of societal inequality evident on the continent. Section 1 addresses the questions of what makes mobility projects sustainable and inclusive. Infrastructure investments in the mobility sector that aim to be sustainable should strive to be low carbon, resilient to climate change and environmental uncertainty, socially inclusive, job producing and in service of Africa’s equitable development in global economies.

As mobility in Africa is generally considered to be national or international in scale, Section 2 provides a framework in order to understand urban mobility. It presents the types of mobility investments on which the report focusses, such as roads and highways, rail networks, ports, and urban public transport systems, and the purposes of mobility, namely passage movement and freight. Building on this initial scope, it is argued that international leaders and donors need to consider urban mobility through three key scales. First, movement within cities is central to the effective development of these cities. Secondly, movement that connects large cities with smaller urban centres within countries is central to urban–rural integration. Lastly, ensuring that African cities form part of systems of cities in Africa and are connected to the world is essential for repositioning Africa within global economies and building strong corridors to support economic development.

Section 3 presents the state of urban mobility infrastructure. It explains that roads and highways have dominated investment in Africa in the past and the present. Notably, despite fundamentally impacting cities, investors have often not considered these projects urban, instead opting to safeguard road corridors by creating bypass roads to reduce interference, resulting in lost opportunities for spatial integration. Rail has a long history in Africa and is linked to colonial extraction; however, there are many gaps in rail systems at the city and regional scales. Very few cities across the continent have functional and operational rail systems. While many ambitious plans connect and improve regional rail for freight and passenger mobility, particularly to address logistics integration, the capital cost of new rail is prohibitive, especially on non-lucrative lines. Ports have shaped Africa’s development for decades. While many port upgrades are currently being undertaken, less attention has been paid to the urban integration of these ports with rural, peri-urban and landlocked regions across the continent. In this section, it is crucial to note that large-scale port investment cannot resolve regional or urban challenges, but rather that port developments and operations must function within a broader urban ecosystem. Finally, the role that urban buses have played across African cities, including their neglect, is considered. It is argued that, despite efforts to build bus rapid transits, paratransit still dominates urban service delivery. Lastly, the key urban governance challenges across these modes and the overarching outcomes of the status-quo of investment are considered, including (a) fossil fuel dependency and pollution; (b) limited affordability and access; (c) road safety; and (d) economic losses.

Section 4 provides high-level and detailed breakdowns of financing quantities by sector and by lender. It shows that African states invest directly in African mobility infrastructure. These investments are supported by loans directly to national governments, with the World Bank being the largest multilateral lender in the mobility space and the Chinese government being the largest bilateral lender. The financing options used for mobility investments in Africa are also explored in this section. Overall, it is shown that the focus of mobility investment has been on highway and road investment, which is supported by rail and ports. Comparatively, small investments are made in transport, specifically to support the urban commuter movement of economies.

Section 5 outlines the key sustainability challenges that the sector faces. These include low carbon transitions, resilient and adaptive systems, socially inclusive and just value chains. First, African cities face the challenge of extending infrastructure, without contributing to carbon emissions. It is argued that it is as much a technical issue, as it is about planning and governance. Secondly, investments need to be resilient to uncertainty and risk. This means making hard trade-offs between large-scale investments and smaller, more incremental changes. Thirdly, it is important that infrastructures have a positive effect on the lives of people and the economies they serve. This means, wherever possible, to reduce travel time, costs and distances; and costs that are directly or indirectly felt by those who rely on these infrastructures for life and livelihoods. Just value chains are, therefore, needed for job creation in the mobility sector, such as operations and manufacturing, and to reposition African cities within global geopolitical international systems.

Section 6 outlines emerging policy directions that are beginning to emerge in the urban mobility and transport sector. It argues that if investments in corridors for regional economic development are driving investment, those concerned with urban sustainability must engage directly with these projects. The scale of these projects means that even slight shifts in how these projects are designed and implemented could have profound sustainability implications for urban areas and city systems.